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Balking at the First Pitch

Among the dozen commanders in chief who have tossed out the ceremonial first pitch is Warren G. Harding, who opened the Washington Senators' 1921 baseball season, continuing a presidential tradition begun 11 years earlier.
Among the dozen commanders in chief who have tossed out the ceremonial first pitch is Warren G. Harding, who opened the Washington Senators' 1921 baseball season, continuing a presidential tradition begun 11 years earlier. (1921 Associated Press Photo)

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"It was understood, and we're moving on," Kasten said.

The team said today's first-ball honors will involve a grandson of Senators immortal Walter Johnson; the widow of Negro Leaguer Wilmer Fields, who starred for Washington's Homestead Grays; new Nats Manager Manny Acta; and former Senators players Chuck Hinton and Mickey Vernon.

Still, Kasten said, "there's no question the Nationals would always want the president to throw out the first ball. Every year. Forever. . . . It distinguishes us."

He doubts it will ever again be routine, though, as it was in bygone times. Starting in 1927, for example, presidents showed up for 12 straight home openers. And they attended 13 in a row beginning in 1946. Maybe the world was a little easier to manage then. "I suspect the demands of the office are very different now," Kasten said.

At the Senators' 1910 home opener, the sight of the nation's 335-pound chief executive hurling a baseball toward the mound from his seat in American League Park delighted the spectators. "It was the first time in history," one scribe wrote, "that a President of the United States has opened a game of professional baseball or had attempted to rival the honors of Mathewson, Mordecai Brown, Walter Johnson, et al."

"TAFT TOSSES BALL," announced The Washington Post. "Crowd Cheers President's Fine Delivery of the Sphere."

The tradition born that afternoon sputtered in the early years. Taft threw out the first ball again in 1911, attending the game with his close friend and military aide Archibald Butt, who had sat with the president in 1910, too. Then four days before the 1912 home opener, while he was returning from Europe -- from a vacation he had taken at Taft's urging -- Butt went down with the Titanic.

"Yesterday the president could not be present for obvious reasons," The Post reported after Opening Day.

Mexico's dictator, President Victoriano Huerta, kept Wilson from throwing out the Opening Day first ball in 1914. So riled was Wilson in a dispute with Huerta's government that he ordered U.S. troops to seize the Mexican port city of Veracruz. About 20 Marines and sailors were killed and dozens wounded in three days of fighting that ended April 23, as the Senators took the field for their home opener.

Wilson also missed Opening Day on April 20, 1917, two weeks after Congress declared war on Germany at his request, plunging the United States into a world conflagration that was still raging when the Senators opened at home in 1918, without the president. He was indisposed again in 1919, busy at the Paris Peace Conference.

The public was kept in the dark about the debilitating stroke Wilson suffered in October 1919, and the newspapers didn't dwell on his absence from the Senators home opener six months later.

After that, the first-ball tradition took deep root. Through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, to the eve of World War II, four presidents missed only two openers at Griffith Stadium in two decades -- 19 for 21 (.905). Only the death of Calvin Coolidge's father in 1926 and Franklin D. Roosevelt's insistence on attending a family gathering in 1939 kept the White House from batting 1.000.


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